Blue Notes: George Duke's final album 'Dreamweaver'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 4:39pm

There's always a poignancy about music recorded by artists who know their days are numbered. Some musicians manage to go out on a career high, even with the grim reaper sitting in the studio.

In jazz, that includes saxophonist Michael Brecker, whose final album, Pilgrimage, was released in 2007. It was recorded while the 57-year-old was in the latter stages of leukaemia, and was generally recognised as an artistic triumph when it came out a few months after his death.

George Duke, who died on August 5, lived just long enough to see the release of his swansong, Dreamweaver. Duke, 67, had worked with Brecker and it would be nice to report that his album is of the same quality as Pilgrimage, but that's not quite true. However, it is a balanced representation of the different facets of Duke's talents, and includes examples of all the styles of music he played.

Although most obituaries called him a jazz keyboardist, much of Duke's discography as a performer and record producer could be more aptly described as rock - particularly the 15 or so albums he made with Frank Zappa - or R&B.

Duke Ellington inspired Duke to become a pianist, and his early recordings with Jean-Luc Ponty also reflected the influence of McCoy Tyner. However, it was as a master of electronic keyboards that he made his mark , first working concurrently with the markedly contrasting bands of Zappa and Cannonball Adderley.

Along with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, who he replaced in the Adderley band, Duke was one of the synthesiser heroes of the early jazz-fusion period, and one of the first to tire of its often empty displays of virtuosity. He was at heart a populist, drawn to grooves and hummable tunes, which made him a good collaborator for pop artists seeking to add a little sophistication to their music, and for jazz artists wishing to go down a more commercial path.

Duke thrived as a co-leader, working first on that basis with Ponty and later with drummer Billy Cobham and bassist Stanley Clarke. He worked with Deniece Williams and Michael Jackson, but also with John Scofield and Miles Davis. And he produced for his cousin, jazz singer Dianne Reeves.

As well as fighting leukaemia while making Dreamweaver, Duke had just started to make music again after a period mourning his wife, during which he had been unable to compose. In 2010, he had also lost a close friend in Teena Marie, with whom he worked on the title track of her Congo Square album. Another track from their collaboration, Ball & Chain, recorded during the sessions for that album, is included here.

Despite his grief, Duke elected to record a set of mostly upbeat commercial R&B, with only occasional excursions into jazz - and those excursions supply the album with its high points.

The CD opens with an early-1980s wash of synthesisers, leading into Stones of Orion. The track reunites him with old sparring partner and that band's bassist, Stanley Clarke, and it's a fine example of Duke the melodic jazz rocker. Duke's spoken vocal track on Trippin' reflects on his lifelong love affair with music, and features a trumpet obligato from Michael Patches Stewart, which mimics Davis' sound on Backyard Ritual, the track on 1986's Tutu which Duke composed, arranged and played most of the other instruments.

The other, mostly instrumental highpoints are the funky AshTray, the fusion synthesiser showcase Brown Sneakers, and the almost 15-minute Burnt Sausage Jam featuring Christian McBride on bass, his long-serving guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, and Lil John Roberts on drums. This track was taken from a 2002 session.

The album closes with a version of Happy Trails, the Roy Rogers theme tune, which Duke intended as a farewell to his wife. It concludes with a guitar solo by Johnson, who died in January.

This positive, generally optimistic music is overshadowed by a lot of deaths. RIP to all.

Take Three

Three albums which showcase the different sides of George Duke.

  • The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with the George Duke Trio (1969, Pacific Jazz): a pioneering jazz-fusion album featuring the potent combination of Duke on electric piano and Ponty on electric violin.
  • Crosswinds (1974, Atlantic): Duke features prominently on one of the iconic albums of 1970s jazz-fusion. The band, led by drummer Cobham, also includes Michael Brecker and his trumpeter brother Randy, and guitarist John Abercrombie; the cover was designed by Hong Kong's Basil Pao.
  • A Brazilian Love Affair (1980, Epic): a big commercial success on which Duke's pop and jazz instincts were perfectly in balance in a Brazilian musical setting. Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and Milton Nascimento guest, and Sheila E makes an early appearance on percussion.